Dr. Jian Gong’s Academic Website

Welcome to my webspace. I am a postdoc researcher at MIT. I was born in Northeastern China, in a city called Shenyang. I came to the United States at the age of 19 and have studied and worked here for more than 15 years. I’ve lived and worked in Paris, France for 3 years. I am now living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA with my wife, a textile artist fom Mexico, and our son, who is 7 years old. My wife and I are makers in our hearts and soul. In addition to my research, I enjoy crafting, fixing, inventing and making strange things in our home studio and small machine shop.

Research

I investigate life’s origins and their records in the distant past and out there amongst the stars. To do this, I take an environment-centered and holistic approach to investivate life’s origins. My primary toolkit to answer questions regarding early environment is via controlled experiments in the laboratory and in the field. By collecting rich environmental data from the-state-of-the-art sensors, and by modifying the environment and probing for responses, my research centers on resolving interactions between life and the environment, and track co-evolutionary relationships between the two.

My research is interdisciplinery and curiosity driven. It crosses academic disciplines such as Geology, Geochemistry, Geomicrobiology, Paleoentology, Ecology, Earth Evolution, Data Science and more. Here I state the high-level objectives while more details can be found in the Projects page.

Topic 1: Primitive surface environments on the early Earth/Mars (Astrobiology)

My current research at MIT is motivated by NASA’s robotic missions on Mars, which are ground-based rovers and orbiting satellites. Together, these missions over the past 20+ years produced incredible details regarding the geologic history of the planet. We now know that early Mars, similar to early Earth, harbored standing liquid water and had conditions that could have hosted microbial life. Mars, also due to the lack of plate-tectonics, has this part of the ancient geology much better preserved. Understanding the non-life to life transition is an incredibly exciting and important scientific subject to investigate.

Recent observations examining mudstone deposits at Gale Crater revealed sedimentary features resembling preserved gas bubbles. Gas bubbles are difficult to preserve geologically and require special conditions, for example early cementation and rapid mineralization. Geochemically, the best candidate gas is hydrogen gas that can be produced during basalt weathering at low redox conditions anaerobically, while the oxidation of Fe is linked to the reduction of water.

My own laboratory experiments performed at the Bosak Lab, MIT utilized simulated analog basalts in collaboration with the Exolith Lab show that fine-grained basalts can indeed interact with water under a high pCO2/N2 anaerobic atomsphere at room temperature to produce hydrogen gas. I developed the necessary instrumentation to reliably measure gas phase hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide at high sensitivity. These experiments lead to the observation that while hydrogen is producing, an amorphous phase that resemble Fe-rich clay minerals were rapidly forming that can preserve sedimentary features. At low redox potentials created by basalts, it appears that organic synthesis is possible and can convert CO2 to simple organics. It can be further hypothesized that the presence of UV and high energy radiation at the surface could lead to the degration and oxidation of these organics, converting them back to atmospheric CO2, potentially forming a primitive (prebiotic) carbon cycle. I am investigating this system and am excited about the prospects of this research for astrobiology.

Topic 2: Fossilization mechanisms

I take laboratory and field experimental approaches to investigate the process of microbial fossil formation. Central to this research is to understand the three kinds of common materials on the Earth surface: amorphous silica, carbonate and silicate (clay) minerals that are very important at preserving the morphological and chemical aspects of life. These solid substances also work in very different ways. While amorphous silica is excellent at preserving cell morphology, producing molds and casts, it is also very porous and not very good at preserving cellular organics. Clays and carbonate minerals, on the other hand, have finer crystalline grain sizes that are much better at preserving organic fingerprints and sealing the physical space.

My innovation and contribution in this research is to design and build efficient data logging and data analytics platforms that can help track solution composition, electrochemistry and physical environments during mineralization and fossilization. The leading researh front in this field is to examine the role of microbial EPS and their effects on biomineralization and fossilization. Me, my coworkers and collaborators are busy at work to design and fine-tune these experimental systems.

Topic 3: Microbial sedimentology and field research

I also investigate physical sedimentological structure formation in relation with microbial community growth and their activities, such as motility, metabolisms and production of exopolymers. This work involves creating and maintaining a wide range of microbial cultures, mostly cyanobacteria and others, to help constrain the role of microbes at preserving sedimentary structures and other macroscopic body fossils during their degradation.

Notable examples of my research are field investigations on digitate and spicular stromatolites in hot spring environments in El Tatio, Chile, investigations on microbial hydrodynamic responses under fluid flow to form steamers and more.